The world body pulled its international workers out of the occupied nation after a suicide bombing against its offices there in August killed 22 employees, leaving only local staff providing humanitarian assistance. Since then, UN chief Kofi Annan has resisted calls to return until safety can be assured.
”I have always maintained that security was important for my staff to return,” Annan told reporters Thursday. ”Our activities are today constrained by the security environment.”
”We need to have a secure environment to be able to go back and I’m not sure we have it yet,” he added.
Annan’s comments came less than 12 hours after a brazen insurgent attack on a U.S. military convoy that included the US military commander in the Middle East, Gen John Abizaid, and the local US commander, Gen Charles Swannack.
Both men were unharmed, but the attack visibly shook the US military establishment in Iraq. The military officials were visiting an Iraqi civil defense corps compound in Falluja, west of Baghdad.
”What happened today is not encouraging,” Annan told reporters. ”Obviously we’re going to remain alert, we’re going to keep our eyes open and analyze the situation vis-à-vis security before we take any decision,” he added.
Annan has come under increasing US pressure not only to mediate the ongoing dispute between the United States and Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani over elections, but also to resume full-scale humanitarian activities suspended after August’s bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad.
Among those killed was UN special representative in Iraq, Undersecretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello. A second suicide bombing on the UN office killed an Iraqi security guard and wounded 19 others.
”The blue flag of the United Nations does not provide staffers protection any more,” says Guy Candusso, vice-president of the UN Staff Union. ”We don’t want the lives of our staff put at risk in the current environment,” he told IPS.
Salim Lone, a former spokesman for Vieira de Mello in Baghdad, has continued to argue strongly against a return to Iraq ”until a politically-driven process under United Nations or genuinely international auspices is being pursued.”
”I am fully supportive of Mr. Annan’s opposition to a return of UN staff to Iraq at this time,” he told IPS.
Lone, who survived the August bombing, said Annan has taken a considerable risk in sending the UN electoral mission to Iraq, ”where the (U.S.-led) Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) seems powerless to prevent devastating insurgent attacks on those associating with the Americans.”
US military forces have even failed to prevent attacks on their own senior officials, including visiting Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and CPA head Ambassador Paul Bremer, in two rocket attacks in December.
Pressed by Washington, Annan sent a UN electoral team to Baghdad last week to study the feasibility of holding direct elections before the CPA hands over power to an Iraqi transitional government Jul 1.
The United States has opted for electoral caucuses instead of general elections, according to many observers, because that process could be manipulated to ensure the election of pro-U.S. Iraqi officials.
Al-Sistani, who leads the country’s Shia Muslims, the majority of the Iraqi people, is insisting on direct elections. The electoral team is expected to study all options and submit a report to Annan soon.
Lone said the announcement that the team was going to Iraq gave him ”a chill of fear” for the safety of the employees.
”But Mr. Annan had to take this risk because there was a dangerous impasse on the key issue of elections that only the United Nations could resolve,” he added.
Moreover, said Lone, al-Sistani had specifically asked for Annan’s intervention, and “there was strong international support for such a vital but brief and carefully defined consultation.”
”Anything other than such brief (UN) visits to Iraq would be a serious blunder,” he warned.
Last week Annan appointed an experienced diplomat, Under-Secretary-General Lakdhar Brahimi, as his special adviser on Iraq. Along with the electoral team, Brahimi is currently in Iraq consulting the various warring factions.
An ex-Algerian foreign minister and the former UN special representative in Afghanistan, Brahimi met al-Sistani on Thursday.
A.U.N. spokesman told reporters Thursday that, according to Brahimi, there is consensus emerging that direct national elections are the best way to establish a parliament and government that would be fully representative and legitimate.
”At the same time, there is wide agreement that elections must be carefully prepared, and that they must be organised in technical, security and political conditions that give the best chance of producing a result that reflects the wishes of the Iraqi electorate, and thus contributes to long-term peace and stability in Iraq,” the spokesman added.
Al-Sistani, who is willing to work with the United Nations, has refused to meet any US officials, including Bremer.
”The various Iraqi factions are watching the United Nations carefully,” says Hans Von Sponeck, a former head of the UN oil-for-food program in Iraq.
”They always have had a double-edged attitude towards the United Nations. This will continue to be the case,” he told IPS.
”I would say the majority of Iraqis of all backgrounds will consider the United Nations the ‘preferred source of last resort,’ nothing more than that,” he added.
But this is ”significantly more than what most Iraqi factions are willing to assign to the CPA, which is not even qualifying in their eyes as a source of last resort.”
”Ayatollah al-Sistani will certainly carefully weigh what Brahimi will tell him, and take into account the UN mission’s recommendations on elections,” Von Sponeck added.